Civic Media is communications technology and what we do with it

Civic Media is communications technology and what we do with it

My name's Matt, and I've just started as a Master's student here at the Center for Civic Media. If I can sufficiently answer our blog post prompt, "What is Civic Media?", I expect to take part in extracurriculars for the next two years.

Civic media is, as far as I've read, a maddeningly broad concept. I think the problem is that it's often confused with two other important, but not identical, questions:

  • How do we fulfill the promise of democracy?
  • What can we do to save journalism?

Civic media, in some of the reports and blog posts I've read, is being asked to not only carry our democracy from a quite imperfect present to the realization of our most Athenian ideals, but also to salvage a romantically anachronistic industry from its broken business model. Unsurprisingly, civic media has failed so far to accomplish either of these tasks. I shall attempt to define civic media more basically, and along the way, present its actual merits. I'll stew over those other two questions a bit longer.

Technology

When we talk about civic media on blogs like this one, we're clearly referring to the civic media made possible by our most recent technological advances. There are countless examples throughout history of civic media, pre-Ethernet. Lloyd's of London began as a coffeeshop in the bustling seaport in the late 17th century. The firm was successful not only because it was conveniently located to sell its clientele maritime insurance, but also because of the rich troves of information passing through its doors as ships, the high-tech of the day, arrived with news from around the globe.

More recently, Tim Wu chronicled the cycle by which amateurs and entrepreneuers in the United States have sought to harness major advances in communications technologies towards civic ends, from community-based phone companies to hyperlocal AM radio stations. Time and again, however, some potent combination of private monopolies with government blessings have driven these civic media, and often the very inventors of the technologies themselves, into bankruptcy and ruin.

The hope is that this time, with the digital revolution, the technology itself is so disruptive as to ensure the survival of a rich civic media ecosystem. This is not a given.

We're familiar with communication channels because they're intertwined in the history of the 20th Century. You can't tell the story of World War II without radio, or the Vietnam War without color television. What is new, with the relatively small exception of Tim Wu's early adopters, is the powerful ability of individuals to connect with one another regardless of the intentions of the traditional gatekeepers of communication.

The unprecedented convergence of existing media into digital form, paired with an explosion of available channels at the individual's disposal, has created what I consider to be a truly unique moment in human history. The expression of the individual and the connection between individuals are two concepts our society holds most dear, so it is fitting that we put faith in the technology that helps us attain these ideals.

Semantics

'Media' is simply the plural of 'medium,' which in this case we define as a communication channel, and of which we have a rich and growing selection. I consider the 'media' in 'civic media' to include not only the internet, but related digital communications technologies, such as computers, cellphones, and satellites. It also includes, to the extent that these technologies are used towards civic (rather than commercial) ends, the "traditional media" of television, radio, telephones, newspapers, magazines, and the journalism that infuses all of the above.

The term 'civic' is a bit more loaded, because it can easily become saddled with our normative preconceptions of the ideal society. I consider media to be civic if, individually or en masse, it addresses or benefits a larger group of citizens, be that a community of shared geography or shared interest. Civic media must, in some way, advance the cause of active citizenship. This definition may not fulfill others' laundry lists of prerequisites, but gives me a basic place to start.

Core Principles

  • Civic media demands participation. Both the technologies and spirit of civic media require interaction. This is a major break from the primarily consumption-driven media of the 20th Century. Civic media is created, consumed, and propagated by active citizens.
  • As long as technologies are invented, they will be used in some way for self-expression or interpersonal communication (the dfiference between which may be a philosophical exercise). We long to connect, to be known and understood. What other species sends golden Chuck Berry records into outer space, despite the miniscule odds of contact?
  • Judging the value of specific civic media is difficult, if not impossible, due to the unpredictability of human events and individuals' differing perceptions of value. To the extent that civic media is a conversation, civic media can be as useful or useless to you as any given conversation.
  • Civic media can help us bridge the gap between our communities of interest, already empowered by the internet, and our communities of geography, beleaguered by changing times. Many of us have experienced growing up in a relatively small geographically-bound community, only to come of age and escape into relative liberation in the communities of choice that better reflect our true identities. Civic media can improve our connection to those around us by merging the two worlds. Meetup, Inc. is the perfect testament to how we can use information technology to get to know others in our immediate community, and actually enjoy the experience as we bond over shared interests.

Anyway.

I'm taking Introduction to Civic Media this semester because I have long been interested in the potential of civic media to combat other, less positive developments in the world. I don't see it as a panacea, but I do see it as an area worthy of hope. I subscribe to the old ideal that an active, educated and engaged citizenry is the cornerstone of a fruitful society, and I'm wholly optimistic that the information and connections made possible by civic media can change the world for the better.